Meet Ashley Elander, An illustrator at Bow Truss River North

Ashley Elander is a Chicago-based illustrator who was tapped to create the intricate chalk mural that serves as the visual focal point of the Bow Truss’s River North location, set to open later this week. The mural, seen above, displays batch brewing and pour-over techniques, the two coffee preparation styles available at Bow Truss.

We caught up with Ashley to find out why she loves collaborating with coffee shops, how she prepared for an elaborate drawing like the one at Bow Truss and where her favorite hangout in Chicago is. We also take a peek at her print work and discover what made her fall in love with illustrations.

See more of Ashley’s work by checking out her portfolio or visiting her new Etsy shop.

Doejo: What is it like creating artwork for coffee shops? How does the coffee world differ from working with other clients? 
Ashley: I worked at Metropolis for a year and a half when I first moved to Chicago in 2010. I’d never drawn on chalkboards before, but started doing daily menu boards during shifts and it took off from there.

When creating work for cafes, not only do I have a lot of creative control, but clients also weigh in my opinions to possible menu changes, certain wording and how the customer will approach the boards. I’m already part of Chicago’s coffee scene and deal with that kind of stuff on a daily basis.  

Other clients, like musicians, tend to have quite specific ideas for a project, whereas chalk projects for coffee-related clients are more of an initial conversation about the board and they usually just let me go. That kind of interaction works best because I’m not trying to create someone else’s vision, but rather we’re creating something original and interesting together. It’s also a lot more fun to draw.

What is your current workspace like? 
Outside of chalk projects, my work is quite small and highly detailed. I live in a tiny apartment where every part is made to be a functioning workspace. I have a large chalkboard, my dining table is more my workspace and there are bins and drawers everywhere for organizing papers and writing utensils. I take drawing with me everywhere and never leave without pens and a sketchbook in my bag.

How do you approach a new project?
The best chalkboards always start with a rough sketch to organize the composition, especially with larger boards like the one at Bow Truss because they’re easy to get lost in since there’s so much space to fill. When starting a board, I draw everything in white chalk to make sure lines are straight and spacing makes sense.  This takes the longest, but is totally necessary. Then I go back in and finalize everything. 

What is your favorite medium to work in?
I mostly work in pen, pencil, watercolor and screenprinting. I’ve done animation and digital work before, but find I much prefer doing everything by hand. Printmaking is my favorite because it allows me to turn one drawing into multiple without losing any of the handmade quality. I’ve done etching and woodcut printing in the past, but have recently found a love for screenprinting. I print and take classes at Spudnik Press, which is definitely one of my favorite places in the city. 

What is the most satisfying part of being an illustrator? 
I love sharing illustrations with people. I often send letters and packages to far away friends full of personalized drawings and little handmade things because I know it’ll be a surprise and brighten their day.

What are your plans for the future? 
I plan on remaining in Chicago and hope to continue with more chalkboard projects. As far as upcoming events go, I have a table once again at Chicago Zine Fest this March where I’ll be selling zines and illustrations. I’d really like to build on the recent creation of and participate in more handmade markets. It’s a great start to the year because I’m collaborating with some great people right now and have a lot of new projects in the works.